The Closet Edit, No. 2: How to Build a Wardrobe

Sep 18, 2018

Several years ago, I read an article that asked hundreds of women in the fashion industry their ideal wardrobe size.  I’ve searched for the article several times, but I’ve never been able to locate it.  What I remember is that the author determined that the perfect wardrobe was 75 pieces.

To some of you, this will seem like a lot.  To others, not nearly enough.  But after years spent helping clients and friends clean out their closet, I find that most women have more than 75 pieces, primarily because they  never get rid of anything.  So what is my preferred ratio for building a functional wardrobe? (Not including shoes.)

Group No. 1. Own 10 special occasion or impractical pieces that you love.

These are your cocktail dresses, your leopard pants, and your studded leather jackets.  Make sure at least half of Group No. 1 are accent pieces that can lift other pieces in your wardrobe.

The philosophy here is that there should be fun in your wardrobe, but there has to be a limit to that fun.  So many times, I’ve walked into a woman’s closet and seen loads of expensive cocktail dresses, but few useful basics.  How does it end up this way?

We treat weddings and other special occasions with reverence.  We want to shine.  We want to look our best.  We want to impress people.  So we spend two-months clothing budget on one dress that will end up in the back of our closet.  It’s not practical…

Group No. 2. Two-thirds of your wardrobe, or 50 pieces, have to be wearable basics.

These are pieces that fit your body and your lifestyle.  The example I gave in the video is the MM. LaFleur Taylor dress.  I own it in four colors.  Why?  It’s figure flattering, can be dressed up or down, and layered under other pieces easily.  It’s also washable, and has pockets.  Cue the hallelujah chorus.

I’m working on another post about which basic pieces are staples in my fall wardrobe.  But I would also include my AG Farrah jeans, my striped Land’s End t-shirt, and my Helmut Lang drape jacket.  They’re the pieces that I know look good, fit well, and reflect my style.

To discover which pieces are your must-have basics, go to your closet, look at everything in there, and pull out the eight pieces you wear most often.  This is your wardrobe’s foundation.  If these piece don’t fit or function well, swap them out for one’s that do.

Group No. 3. 15 items should be on-trend, seasonal pieces.

Sometimes we just all need something new.  We feel like we’re wearing the same pieces all the time, and we need a boost.  This is where trendy, seasonal pieces come in.  Whether it’s the $20 blouse from Zara or the floral dress that you probably won’t wear next season, these are the pieces that keep your wardrobe feeling fresh.

When you buy these pieces, keep your basics in mind.  If you love a black, cashmere sweater, add a pair of berry-colored trousers and a plaid pencil skirt.  Don’t try to build new outfits solely out of trendy pieces, instead focus on what can give your basics more mileage.

To achieve a more specific wardrobe breakdown (five tops, 10 dresses, etc.), you need to think about what you specifically wear.  These groups are just to get you started thinking about functionality and style as two prongs of the same instrument.  They work together, but don’t let one overtake the other.

How do you break up your wardrobe?  Or if you’ve never thought about it, what are some mistakes you’ve made?

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Building a Wardrobe, Style

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  1. Kay says:

    I just love this post. Have been following your blog for years and rarely comment but wanted to let you know how helpful this is to me. I’ll adapt it to my own situation, but this is a really helpful way to frame something that makes me crazy when I try to think about it.

    Loving the content lately!

  2. Amelia says:

    Wow. This is the most useful guide how to build a wardrobe guide I’ve ever seen. I’ve been looking into capsule wardrobes forever; even read a couple of book on this subject (spoiler alert: useless, except for Marie Kondo.) The ratios and three-group classification in your guide make this so approachable and easy to customize to one’s personal style and situation.

    As for mistakes, when I was in my capsule wardrobe/French girl style phase, I ended with a wardrobe full of basics in neutral colors. It was so anti-climactic to accomplish my mission only to feel super basic and frumpy, and like I had given up my personal style. I love bold jewelry, funky patterns and brights. I also want to look professional and put together, while keeping a relatively small wardrobe. Your post honestly was an epiphany on how to bring all of that together. THANK YOU!

    • Kelly says:

      I really liked the idea of a capsule wardrobe. I looked at so many online guides. Then I realized with a business formal dress code I’d basically need two capsules, plus I didn’t want to beat myself up about having “too many” pieces in my capsule. But I just did a quick count, and I’m around the 75 number, maybe even 5 – 10 pieces lower.

      Even though I never got close enough to find out…I suspect that going down to a capsule wardrobe would lead to doing laundry more frequently.

    • LS says:

      Echoing the helpful post comments!

      Regarding capsule wardrobes, I’m sorry to hear they’ve gotten a wrap for being neutral or frumpy. There’s definitely a lot of the former out there, but there are lots of great capsules with color too. The idea is exactly the same what Abra describes above – don’t go overboard with super trendy pieces. Buy staples that you feel good wearing and go together. For you, a hot pink pencil skirt might be a staple. And that’s great.

      Regarding laundry, I don’t do a formal capsule but I wear about the same number of items in each season (around 35-40). And I haven’t found any difference in laundry at all. Most people with big wardrobes where the same few dozen pieces any way. I do laundry every 2-3 weeks on average.

  3. Jennifer says:

    Agreed with the others. This is the best and most useful post in this topic I have seen!! Thank you.

  4. S says:

    Your content this week is fabulous (and its only TUESDAY)!

  5. Dee says:

    Great post! What’s the video you reference? Thanks.

  6. Laura says:

    So I only wear dresses for like big client presentations (been at this job for about 3 months and this has been once; probably should have pulled it out another time). I use my Taylor dress for this — would it be weird if the only other fancy work dress I owned was the Taylor in another color?

  7. Emily says:

    Popping by to echo the comments of many others: this post is excellent and incredibly helpful! Keep this kind of content coming!

  8. Caroline says:

    I’m considering the Taylor – but am having a hard time imagining how you dress it down. Would love people’s thoughts who own it.

  9. LS says:

    I’d love to see a styling post with the Taylor dress! I’ve been eying it and styles like it but I have a hard time picturing which layers go with it that don’t break up the drape.

    I have one of those lovely body types that gains weight only in the midsection so tummy masking styles have become my jam.

    • Anne says:

      Second this. I like wearing a sweater or knit blazer with my sleeveless dresses and I’m struggling to visualize a layered look with this dress.

      • Belle says:

        If you go for a one button blazer that hits at or near the knot, it looks great. I also do a LONG jacket like the kind they sell at Zara sometimes. And if you go for a sweater, do a sleek fitting open one.

    • Crystal says:

      I’ve layered it with Spanx black lace arm sleeves and tights (paired with a leopard envelope clutch) — totally worked for a fancier event.

  10. anna c says:

    This is SUCH good advice!!! I really like this concept, and I’m overdue for a wardrobe organization, especially with the changing season.

    (Echoing others who have said how good the content is lately – keep it up!)

  11. Monica says:

    Wow – does this include your casual t-shirts and workout wear? Otherwise I do *not* have this many clothes.

  12. Stephanie says:

    How do you break down the 50 wearable basics between work clothes and causal weekend clothes? I struggle with finding the right balance between needing mostly work clothes but also wanting t not wear the same things every night/weekend.

    • Mary-Lou Andre’s book suggests breaking your wardrobe into groups according to your lifestyle. I spend at least 30% of my time in gym clothes, so 30% of my clothes should be gym clothes. Work clothes are pretty conservative and constitute about 30%, then weekend wear and casual, etc. That rule of thumb makes a lot of sense to me. You should also look at the price of clothing “per use” as opposed to total price. I finally retired the most expensive dress I ever bought about 20 years ago, but I wore it so much, that it turned out to be a great purchase!

  13. Elz says:

    Great thing I noticed several years ago was that I didn’t have “fancy” clothes and had to find things last minute. I’d definitely suggest paying attention to the special pieces so that you have something ready on one or two days’ notice that you love & feel comfortable in. It’s more budget and stress conscious to be prepared!

  14. LX says:

    Since I wear scrubs at work, when I shop I try to only purchase high quality clothes made out of good fabrics that will last and that I absolutely love and am excited about. In theory. But when I actually shop it’s so hard to find items that fit my criteria, and sometimes I just want something new. So I end up settling for something I think is vaguely cute off a clearance rack. I wish there was an easy way to find non business casual clothes in the 100-200$ range that are of great quality. I have toddlers and work full time but still want to look unique and put together without spending hours a week shopping.

  15. SC says:

    I’m full-up on casual clothes but I’m trying to add thoughtful pieces to my work wardrobe. After years of “no swimsuits” dress codes, it’s been a process! I definitely prefer dresses to pants, and I sew most of my clothes, so I do a ton of wardrobe planning. Right now I need dresses with sleeves and versatile tops to go with solid color skirts and pants, so that’s what I’m working on.

    This is an awesome post, btw.

  16. NK says:

    Thanks for this! For some reason, fall always inspires me to rethink my wardrobe! Any chance this is the article you were thinking of?

  17. Ellie says:

    Don’t have any specific comments on this post, but just wanted to stop by to say your content this week has been awesome! Love it!

  18. Amy says:

    I am on the hunt for an awesome new striped shirt, but it absolutely infuriates me that Lands End charges up for tall sizes. I find it discriminatory and illogical (I once asked them about it and they cited the extra fabric. For that reason, why don’t they offer a discount for petites?) I refuse to buy anything from them. Can you suggest another striped shirt in a longer length for us tall girls?

  19. Valerie says:

    This is the best post in this genre I have ever read, and I have been looking for one. And crafting a similar plan myself. Mine was actually 50 core, 10 impractical/rarely worn, 20 trendy and 10 “I only own because of my weird travel destinations because of work” – but that has felt like too much.

    I did have one question – what do you, Abra (and other commenters too!), consider for t-shirts/knit tops. Ie I own 5 of the same long-sleeved black tops that I wear under most of my suits. Are those 1 item for purposes of this list, or 5? Also, I consider suits one item at this point, largely because I rarely break them up as separates.

    • Belle says:

      If I’m storing multiples of a piece — which I do with striped tees and sometimes shoes — I don’t consider the others. Simply because they’re not being worn right now. It’s like having a player on injured reserve, it doesn’t count toward the roster.

  20. Lexi says:

    Man, this was a GREAT post. Thank you

  21. s-p-c says:

    Terrific post, Abra – I’ve spent the last couple of years trying to get my wardrobe proportions right for me, and am finally just about there, with the majority of my dresses (which I wear exclusively) for work, then a good number for weekends, and then only a handful for special occasions, which is definitely a weakness of mine if unchecked.

    One thing that helps is my narrow preferences for silhouette and color (lots of black and navy, especially navy), and being happy with a wardrobe that skews dressy for all occasions – although machine washable; I have a toddler.

    I definitely duplicate key wardrobe workhorses, some of which wait in the wings and some of which I keep in rotation (e.g., identical Hugo Boss blazer at both the office and at home, and two MM Nisa navy dresses since I wear one almost weekly), which doesn’t increase the mental stress of more choices but decreases the mental stress of the possibility of some tragedy befalling a beloved item.

  22. Monica T says:

    Great stuff! I have more than 75 items, but there is also a lot of variation to how I dress on a day-to-day and then seasonal basis. Part of my problem is I don’t wear suits or dresses, so all of my workhorse outfits count as multiple pieces. So while I think the number is a good guideline, especially if you feel like your wardrobe is out of whack, once you get it under control I think it’s ok to have more. Love this series, feeling motivated on my next free day to go through the whole thing and reevaluate!

  23. Erica says:

    I’ve been loving your blog for years, especially since I can trust your reviews, but this post was life-changing for me. I’ve never had a metric to analyze my wardrobe before, and I learned such interesting things from breaking it down along these lines!

    1. All my impractical pieces are cocktail dresses, which I’m ok with since I’m in the “wedding” season of life. But now I’ll keep an eye out for good splurges.
    2. My basics have a lot of navy tops and black bottoms – probably why i have pieces I like but don’t wear, because they only go with my white pants! So I need to diversify there, and I could probably purge better if I had more usable pieces.
    3. I have no real “trendy” pieces. When I shop, I always think I need basics to fill in my wardrobe, but i didn’t realize it’s the fun things I’m missing.

    I can’t wait until I break out my winter wardrobe so i can do the same analysis! This has been so helpful, I think it really will change my approach to buying clothes for the rest of my life. I just needed a new way to think about what I need. Thanks for keeping up with your awesome blog!

  24. Anne says:

    Great post, very helpful frame of analysis. Any chance part 3 is still in the works?

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